By Clay Christensen
I first heard a winter wren many years ago in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our friends had a cabin there, and we had been invited to spend a week there that summer.
I’d often hike around in the woods, listening to the thrushes and the ovenbirds. Thrushes are very melodic. They have a split voice box (syrinx) so they can harmonize with themselves. They seem to favor the time of day when the sun is nearing the horizon and daylight is just beginning to fade.
The ovenbird gives a persistent “Teacher, teacher, teacher” call, increasing in volume. For as loud as they are, they are difficult to see, most likely on or near the forest floor.
One July morning, as I followed a deer trail, I heard the most angelic bird song. It was complicated, varied in pitch, and long—very long. I froze, and then looked around carefully, trying to discover the source.
Finally I saw a tiny brown bird, perched on a pile of scrap lumber, the trimmings left over from logging days. He threw back his head and sang that magical song. It was a trill of rapid staccato notes.
I was familiar with the house wren, but this bird was smaller and darker. Its tail was short and cocked nearly straight up. I checked my field guide and identified it as a winter wren, described as shaped like a little ball. It was skittish, hopping around from log to log, scooting under tree roots, disappearing, popping back up again—very mouse-like.
In my research, observers report that the male’s song lasts 5 to 10 seconds. It seems much longer. And the bird manages 16 notes per second. (Try that tapping two fingers.)
This bird was on his breeding territory. In fact, I heard two that day, probably declaring that theirs was the best territory: “Come on over here, baby!” The winter wren’s breeding territory extends across the southern Canadian provinces and dips into northern Michigan, the U.P., northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota.
Fast forward nearly 20 years to my second winter wren encounter. I was on our backyard deck and saw what looked like a mouse skitter along the bottom of the fence at the edge of the deck. It ran—and then flew!
I ran after it, around the garage, to my neighbor’s back fence, where again it stayed close to the ground and disappeared between the pickets. It obviously would rather run than fly. This was in October, so it was a fall migrant, heading to its winter range in the southern United States.
My third encounter happened when several of us were birding on a spring morning, walking along Sucker Creek in Vadnais Heights. Suddenly, a small dark bird flushed out of the bank on our side and flew across to the other side. This was the spring migrant version of the winter wren, heading back north.
The wrens had been silent in these Minnesota sightings. I had only heard them sing on their breeding range, up in the U.P., until a Monday morning this June.
Our small group of Monday Morning Birders was in Reservoir Woods in Roseville. We’d hiked through the adjoining Woodview Open Space and up the hill to the reservoir. On our way back to the parking lot, I went out onto an observation platform to take a break.
As I sat resting my legs, I heard the unmistakable high-pitched warbling tune of a winter wren. I called out to my birding buddies: What on earth was he doing in Roseville in June? He must have given up on his northward migration and decided to try his luck here.
But looking for a mate so far south? Good luck, fella! Actually, after consulting the range map for the bird, the Twin Cities are on the southern edge of its breeding range. So he might be able to find a mate here.
My friend Monica saw our report of the bird, went to the observation platform that afternoon, and photographed the wren. The photo doesn’t show the upright tail, but she did get a decent shot of this elusive bird.
My buddy Julian had been with us that morning. He went back a few days later and recorded the song of the very bird Monica had photographed. You can hear the Roseville winter wren at https://tinyurl.com/ydcnm4ot. The audio lasts about a minute and includes a few other birds in the background.
The winter wren is a good example of why I love bird-watching. Here in the southern part of the state, its appearance is serendipitous. You might have a good chance to see one farther north, but around here, it is a pleasant surprise. Birding is like that.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, “The Birdman of Lauderdale,” is available in local bird stores, bookstores and BirdmanBook.com